How does one conserve what never was known to exist? Sabah, Malaysia is host to high levels of marine biodiversity in its coastal waters, as evidenced by scientific knowledge of fishes, stony corals, crustacea and some other groups. However, there is relatively little known of the actual diversity of many invertebrate groups, such as the sponges (Porifera), soft corals (Cnidaria), ascidians (Urochordates) and “shell-less” molluscs (opisthobranchs). In large part this is due to great difficulty in identifying members of these groups, even from a specimen in hand.

As part of an overall effort to document the diversity of marine invertebrates of the Indo-west Pacific region and find natural products which would benefit mankind, this project aimed to increase knowledge of these organisms in East Malaysian waters and have the samples collected screened for anti-cancer activity by the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) under an agreement which is viewed as a collaboration between the NCI and the Sabah State Government.

In a collaborative effort with the US National Cancer Institute in Ft. Detrick, Maryland, USA, MRF implemented a biodiversity assessment of marine invertebrates in North Borneo, samples of which are tested at the NCI for anti-cancer and anti-AIDS properties. This work has the potential to save lives, while at the same time elucidating the nature of Borneo’s shallow water invertebrates. The project has identified seventeen new species and three new genera in 2005 alone, and a suite of unnamed species are currently in the process of being identified. Survey sites have been spread out along the northern shores of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, and work has been undertaken in collaboration with specialists from the Natural History Museum in Paris, Naturalis Museum in Leiden, the Coral Reef Research Foundation, the Northern Territory Museum in Australia, and several others.

The biodiversity rights and economic interests of the State of Sabah, Malaysia and Sabah Parks in this endeavor are protected through an agreement, termed the NCI Collection Letter. Many of the collections focused on non-reef habitats such as mangroves and limited visibility bays and channels. Intellectual property rights of all samples resides with the host nation, Malaysia, and in the event of a product testing positive for life-saving properties, the Government of Malaysia will initiate development of drugs. Spinoffs from this project no include a proposal for wider coverage of the biodiversity assessment work and inclusion of community-based awareness and dialog sessions to address local conservation concerns.

At regular intervals, the Marine Research Foundation updates the identifications as specialist taxonomists provide detailed identifications and compiles species lists. We hope to eventually work with our local partner, Sabah Parks, to prepare guide books or other identification materials for marine invertebrates of East Malaysia.

This project was funded by the US National Cancer Institute via the Coral Reef Research Foundation, Koror, Palau.